Not so civilised

The way the word ‘civilisation’ is bandied about in popular writing about ancient history has always bugged me. Most archaeologists must be well aware of how problematic a concept it is, but when it comes to writing for a non-specialist audience, phrases like “the earliest civilisations” are suddenly back in fashion. I suppose the reasoning is that ‘civilisation’ is a more widely understood term than ‘complex society’ or ‘urban state’, but is it? Yes, most people will have heard the word before, and the same can’t be said about the current jargon. But it’s as slippery as Service’s greasy ladder and I doubt many’s understanding of it will particularly resemble the way it’s used in archaeology. So naturally when people encounter ‘civilisation’ used in the unfamiliar context of describing a historical development, they assume that the term must have a specialist definition that’s being applied. Since it doesn’t and isn’t, trying to swap in a familiar term ends up causing more confusion than it solves. Better to stick with the jargon, and realise that if you’re going to use unfamiliar concepts there’s really no way around explaining them.

Someone led up exactly this garden path recently posted in /r/AskHistorians, asking “What is the working definition of civilization that has been used to named ‘the first civilization’?” Which finally gave me a chance to pontificate on why ‘civilisation’ is meaningless in archaeology:

There isn’t a fixed or widely accepted definition. In the context of ancient societies, the closest thing is V. Gordon Childe’s ten criteria1:

  • Extensive, densely populated settlements
  • Full-time specialists
  • Food surplus paid to a deity or divine king
  • Monumental public buildings
  • A ruling elite of civic, religious and political leaders
  • Writing
  • Exact and predictive sciences
  • Sophisticated art

Çatalhöyük was very large and impressive settlement for its time, but it doesn’t meet very many of these. The population density could probably be described as urban but its total population (3,000–8,000) hardly counts as a city. There is little evidence for craft specialisation at all, never mind full-time specialists; no evidence of an elite or class stratification of any kind; no public buildings; no writing; and no state.

I should stress though that that’s very much a historical definition and today few anthropologists or archaeologists would consider the word civilisation to have a technical definition. Although it’s probably the most consistent and useful definition anyone’s ever come up with, Childe’s ‘civilisation’ doesn’t really hold up as a properly scientific type If it was, he would have defined his criteria based on some theoretical principle and then applied it to every society equally in order to classify them as ‘civilised’ or ‘uncivilised’. In reality, he began with the preconception that the early urban societies of Mesopotamia were the first civilisation and created his list from the characteristics he could see there that distinguished them from their contemporaries. So when you’re deciding if a society is a civilisation based on Childe’s criteria, you’re not really comparing them to an objective standard, you’re comparing them to Bronze Age Mesopotamia. As a result societies which most people would think of as being equally accomplished as the Sumerians or Egyptians (e.g. Hawaii, Great Zimbabwe, the Xiongnu) fall short because their own historical trajectories didn’t take them past arbitrary milestones like “system for recording information” or “regular importation of raw materials”.

Not to mention Childe’s is only one of dozens and dozens of definitions of civilisation and it was never applied consistently even within the small world of Anglo-American archaeology. Many archaeologists before and since have understood the word civilisation in the loose, colloquial sense of “a sophisticated and accomplished society” and therefore applied it to everything from the Stone Age down in an attempt to add a bit of glamour to the collection of rock they’ve been studying for their entire career. As early as 1957 the anthropologist A. L. Kroeber made it clear that he didn’t see a compelling reason to distinguish civilisations from any other culture2:

There is a widespread usage of the term civilization as meaning advanced or literate or mainly urban culture. With this usage I do not quarrel, but I have tried to choose between the two near synonyms in such a way that the reader would realize in any given situation whether I meant the more general or the more slanted sense.

This is the approach I think most Anglo-American anthropologists and archaeologists today would agree with, because we’ve long since abandoned the framework of linear social evolution (where societies are seen to inevitably progress from barbarity to civilisation) that this exercise of classification comes from, and because of the unpleasant political implications of calling a culture (especially a living one) “un-civilised”.

To complicate matters further, there are lots of completely different definitions floating about. Anthropologists and archaeologists, when they’ve used it, have tended to look at civilisation as a stage in the development of a society over time. Historians have a completely parallel use of the word civilisation as a concept grouping societies into large cultural blocs. Arthur Toynbee, for example, divided all of world history between just 26 major civilisations. This is the sense that’s used in terms like ‘Western civilisation’, or in games by Sid Meier. Or it can just mean advancement and refinement in general (“we’re a long way from civilisation”, “this is a very civilised party”). Or be a synonym for culture (“French civilisation”). Classicists might prefer a definition closer to the original sense of the word civitas in Latin – a body of citizens. And I have no doubt that there a hundred other versions of the word in languages other than English.

In short, civilisation is slippery, poorly defined concept that has never really been rigorously applied to ancient societies. The closest thing to a working definition is one that distinguishes urban, state civilisations from smaller scale societies, which is probably what your book was evoking when it left Çatalhöyük out of the club. But the whole idea of classifying societies on the basis of their level of ‘advancement’ is one that never stood up as good science and is now decidedly outdated. If you want to call Çatalhöyük a civilisation, go for it. It doesn’t mean much.


  1. Smith, M. 2009. V. Gordon Childe and the Urban Revolution: a historical perspective on a revolution in urban studies. Town Planning Review 80:3–29. doi:10.3828/tpr.80.1.2a
  2. Kroeber, A. L. 1957. Style and civilizations. Ithica, NY: Cornell University Press.